A Better Way to Shop for Colleges
The Maddening Mirage of College Pricing
Shopping for college is like seeing a mirage adrift in a hall of mirrors. Most of the time, a school’s announced price is totally meaningless, tens of thousands of dollars more than what they ask you to pay. But “most of the time” doesn’t mean all of the time, and the price tag at the bottom of the acceptance letter a school sends to you could range from the full price (plus some weird fee you’ve never heard of) to a full ride (plus a coupon for a free t-shirt) depending on the results of a mystery formula that you’d need a supercomputer (or a psychic) to solve. Wandering through a hall of mirrors is bad enough for your self-esteem. Adding a mirage to the mix is just mean.
It’s Not Just the Price, It’s the Waiting to Find Out
The core of the problem in shopping for colleges isn’t actually the prices themselves, although you can’t go a week without reading another legitimate lament about the crazy-high cost of college. The core problem is a classic case of chicken and egg. Because college prices can be so expensive and vary so much, students and parents want to know the real price of a school before deciding whether or not to apply. After all, there’s no point in applying to a school that you can’t afford, right? But colleges won’t tell you your actual price until they’ve made a decision about whether or not to admit you, something they won’t do until they’ve received your application.
Why this dizzying dance? The simple answer is that this is the way that colleges have always done it. And as long as:
- there were far more students hoping to get into college than there were available spots,
- financial aid focused almost exclusively on helping admitted students who couldn’t afford the cost, and
- there were plenty of ways to earn a good wage without some sort of additional schooling,
. . . we all put up with it.
But none of those things are true anymore. The number of high school students graduating every year has dropped substantially, and after 2024 that number plummets. At most colleges and universities, financial aid philosophy has long since stopped prioritizing financial need. And the number of good-paying jobs that don’t require education beyond high school has all but dried up.
Change is Hard, and Harder if You Don’t Want To
In a perfect world, colleges and universities would have adopted fully transparent pricing a long time ago. But higher education institutions are run by people, and people rarely change unless they have to.
As a result, people trying to shop for a reasonable college option are compelled to narrow their choices without knowing whether a school is affordable or not. For some, this means never even considering a school with a high sticker price, because they don’t know that the financial aid that the school will offer them would make it affordable. For others, it means grimly facing a final few college offers that all require more than they can afford and, believing they are stuck, borrowing heavily just to enroll. And for many more, it means giving up on the whole idea of college because . . . why bother?
But This Time, Change is Easy
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for colleges and universities to change. We can solve this debacle all by ourselves. Because the actual prices that colleges ask individual students to pay aren’t hidden away in a vault somewhere. Every year, colleges and universities send out millions of acceptance packets that include a financial award and an actual price to millions of students. If we shared all of those individual prices and organize them by the same student characteristics that schools use to determine those prices, any individual could find out what price any school would offer them. This information would dramatically simplify the search for an affordable college option.
Whether you have to find a college option that you can afford, or you merely want to know that the price you are being asked to pay is worth what you think college should cost, we work to empower the public to team up and crack open the black box of college pricing. If you think that the current college pricing charade needs to change, then join us! Upload your award letters, tell your friends and family that there is a better way to shop for colleges, and throw back the curtain on college pricing so that you—and everyone else—can find an affordable financial fit.